NATIONAL

Local issues the key in the national capital

IN RETROSPECT, what would have been the most obvious outcome of a predictable race now appears to have an element of surprise. The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the remaining three States of the Hindi heartland has thrown up a question about the verdict in Delhi, a question no one had bothered to ask in the last two months. What makes Delhi, once a Jan Sangh stronghold, an exception? How did the Congress Government in Delhi escape the anti-incumbency wave that has been witnessed in all the other States? This question overshadows the other questions that have come up after the verdict. What does this victory tell us about the future of Delhi politics? Has the BJP's dominance in Delhi in all the Lok Sabha elections held in the previous decade finally come to an end? And, why was the Congress victory not as comprehensive as it was initially expected to be?

It is easier to answer the last question first. The final verdict makes the electoral drubbing look lighter for the BJP. A look at the vote share shows that the Congress secured 48.1 per cent of the votes to gain a 13 percentage points lead over the BJP. This lead is, for instance, bigger than that secured by the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. Compared to the last Assembly elections, the Congress has gained 0.4 percentage points in terms of votes, while the BJP has gained 1.2 points. In the normal course, it would have led to a replay of the result in the last Assembly elections. But a freak occurrence has resulted in the BJP getting a better seats tally. In a rare coincidence, the Congress has lost all the seven seats that were decided by narrow margins of less than 2,000 votes. This has helped the BJP add five seats to its tally of 15 in the previous elections. Otherwise, this verdict is a replication of the Assembly elections verdict of 1998. In all, 45 of the 55 sitting MLAs who contested this time have won. The Congress retained 41 of the 52 seats it won last time, while the BJP held 10 of its 15. A total of 18 seats changed hands. This presents an unusual picture of stability compared to the all-India trend of around half the seats changing hands each time, even when the ruling party remains in power.

There is also some evidence of a last-minute shift towards the BJP that helped it narrow the lead from about 17 points reported by most of the polls to the final figure of 13 points. In the post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS between the day of voting and the day of counting, the respondents were asked when they had made up their minds to vote. The Congress led by 17 percentage points among those who had made up their minds before the candidates were decided, by 11 points among those who had decided during the campaign and only 4 points among those who had made up their minds on the day of polling. Some of this may be owing to the `underdog effect', sympathy for a party that is reported to be far behind in the polls. But there is no clear evidence on this count.

To get back to the first, big, question: what accounts for the exceptional performance by the Congress in Delhi? It is tempting to read everything associated with the Congress or this elections as being the cause of the Congress victory. It may be said, for instance, that the Congress made a very wise selection of candidates, but the claim flies in the face of all that we know. The process of candidate selection was poor and contentious, leading to the emergence of many rebels and the defeat of more than one of the official candidates. Similarly, it is difficult to argue that a special social chemistry enabled the Congress to pull it off this time. The final evidence shows that the Congress won with the same social combination that it had cobbled up last time. Its overwhelming advantage among the Dalits, Muslims and to some extent other backward classes (OBCs) enabled it to override its disadvantages among upper caste Hindus, specially Punjabis. As was the case last time, class divisions mattered much more in Delhi than caste-community divisions. The Congress did make some inroads among the upper and middle classes but came back to power on the basis of the solid support of the lower middle class and poor voters. Notwithstanding the fact that the Chief Minister was a woman, the Congress did not enjoy any edge, let alone any overwhelming support, among women voters.

The same is true with regard to the personality factor, that was played up by the media. It is true that Sheila Dikshit was always way ahead of Madan Lal Khurana in popularity rankings and that she had emerged as the undisputed leader of the Congress in Delhi, leaving her rivals way behind. Yet, it is not clear if she was the principal reason for voters voting for the Congress. Khurana may have been something of a liability for the BJP, but when asked directly, most of the voters said he was the right choice for the party. On balance, personalities reflected the voters' judgment of the parties, rather than it being the other way round. The same is true of the turnout effect. Delhi witnessed a higher turnout this time compared to the last election when the electoral rolls were rather dubious. The Congress has won 22 of the 28 constituencies that witnessed a lower-than-average turnout. But that cannot possibly explain the broad contours of this victory.

The question then is: why did an overwhelming proportion of the voters see no reason to change their voting preference? The principal answer lies in the nature of issues that mattered to the voters and their view of what they had to choose from. The post-election survey clearly demonstrates three points in this regard. One is that the election was fought on the performance of the State Government. The Central Gvernment was not a factor, except for some of the BJP voters. Secondly, the issues that mattered most to the people were those of day-to-day governance, of development, of electricity, water, roads and so on.

And thirdly, as far as governance was concerned, they were pretty satisfied with the record of the Congress Government. Even among the BJP voters, more of them were satisfied with the performance of the Government than those who were not.

Local issues the key in the national capital

At any rate, the voters found the claims of the Congress in this regard to be more credible than those of the BJP.

In the last instance, then, the Congress seems to have understood and responded better to the changing sociology of Delhi, a city that is constantly re-defined by layers of migration and new settlements. The BJP, still imprisoned in its Punjabi and trader support base, has not responded to the new face of Delhi. Madan Lal Khurana simply came to symbolise this fossil-like character of the party.

If this reading is correct, changing the leader alone will not bring about dramatic changes in the fortunes of the party. In the 1990s, the BJP did well in all the Lok Sabha elections held in Delhi, mainly because these elections foregrounded supra-local issues.

But if local issues were to dominate national elections in Delhi, as they do in most of the States, the Congress will sweep the Lok Sabha elections that are due next year. The post-election survey directly addressed the question of how the citizens of Delhi would vote if Lok Sabha elections were to be held tomorrow.

The answer holds some hope for the Congress in an election full of cruel surprises: the party has exactly the same 13-point lead over the BJP as it has managed in the Assembly elections.

But the results also hold an alarm signal for the party. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has secured 5.8 per cent of the votes despite an obvious lack of effort on the part of its leader, the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati.

The vote share did not damage the Congress anywhere this time, but can well turn decisive in the long run and unsettle the two-party system that has prevailed in Delhi.

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